Friday 29 January 2016

Nudes and niqabs: drawing the line

So, President Rouhani of Iran, how did you like those big white boxes they showed you on your visit this week to Rome's Capitoline Museum?

You knew, of course, that they had been put there to spare your blushes, to hide the -- gasp! -- nude statues on display. But did you realise how much harm those boxes did to the cause of fostering better relations between Iran and the West?

Some idiot official in Rome seems to have decided that it was essential to ensure that you were not offended by the statues (the Italian press have identified a protocol official in the prime minister's office). In doing so, however, the Italians managed to offend just about everyone else, by giving the impression that there is something shameful, or embarrassing, about some of Europe's greatest artistic treasures.

Look, I understand that diplomacy requires compromise, especially if there's the smell of billions of dollars of new trade contracts in the air. If you prefer to attend State banquets at which no alcohol is served, OK, fine. I can live with it, although I much prefer the French approach. No wine? No banquet. Your choice.

In Rome, officials could so easily have found a way round the issue of whether or not you should risk walking past marble statues showing their bulges and dangly bits. They could have asked. Is it a problem? If so, we'll find somewhere else for you to visit, somewhere with no statues.

What they did instead was provide Islamophobes with yet more ammunition with which to deepen the gulf of misunderstanding between two cultural traditions. Look at these Muslims: they even force us to cover up our own works of art. Talk about an own goal …

The essence of freedom is choice. You can choose not to admire nude statues; I can choose the opposite. But no freedom is absolute, so there are lines to be drawn, lines that define basic, universal human rights that transcend different cultures. That is why there is a universal declaration of human rights, to which all cultures can subscribe: everyone is born free and equal, regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, national or social origin; no one has the right to enslave or torture; everyone has the right to a fair trial.

So choices do have to be limited. I cannot choose to drive at 100 miles per hour along a crowded city street, nor can I choose to mutilate my daughters or force them to marry someone against their will. Societies draw up rules to enable them to function as a cohesive whole, and those rules reflect the consensus view of the society's members, agreed over time.

In which case, what do we make of what looks like the entirely unnecessary intervention by the chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw about the wearing of the niqab, or full face veil, in English schools? He's agin it, and so am I, but given that only an infinitesimal number of Muslim schoolgirls do wear a niqab, it's hard to see why he felt the need to issue an edict about it and threaten to punish schools that disagree. It was yet another own goal, again deepening the gulf between Muslims, including those who wouldn't dream of wearing a niqab, and non-Muslims.

(Glossary of terms: a niqab is a piece of black cloth that covers the entire face with the exception of the eyes; a hijab is a headscarf, designed to cover a woman's hair; a burqa is a full length gown, often pale blue, which includes a full face veil, mainly worn in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and India.)

I last wrote about the niqab 16 months ago -- and what I said then was that, with some exceptions, what people choose to wear is nothing to do with anyone else. In a school it's different, because even schools that don't insist on a uniform still have dress codes. Boob tubes are out, and hoodies are verboten, as are face piercings and brightly coloured dyed hair.

Let's be clear: wearing a niqab is not regarded as a religious requirement by the vast majority of Muslims. Even in President Rouhani's Iran, women do not cover their faces. It is a cultural tradition with its origins in the Arabian peninsula, exported by preachers who follow the teachings of wahhabism. If a girl attending a British school, or her family, insist that her face must be covered, they can be politely advised that the school's dress code requires otherwise and that if they find that unacceptable, they are free to look for another school.

To show respect for someone else's beliefs or traditions is not the same as to capitulate to them. The officials at the Capitoline Museum in Rome were wrong to hide their nude statues, and if there are any teachers in England who allow girls to hide their faces in the classroom -- which I very much doubt -- they're wrong too. 

Friday 22 January 2016

Cameron on Muslim women: shoddy and shameful

Compare and contrast:

'If you're not able to speak English, you're not able to integrate. You may find, therefore, that you have challenges understanding what your identity is and you could be more susceptible to the extremist message that comes from Daesh.' - David Cameron, speaking on the Today programme, 18 January.

'The Liberal Jewish synagogue in St John's Wood has appointed a French rabbi for the Gallic part of its congregation, which has grown rapidly.' - London Evening Standard, 19 January.

As you may have seen, Mr Cameron also said that immigrants who have been admitted to the UK on five-year spousal visas will be required to take a language proficiency test after two and a half years.  If they fail, 'they can't guarantee that they'll be able to stay. It is tough.'

So let's see if I've got this right. Muslim women who are immigrants -- which nearly half of them are not, having been born in the UK -- are at risk of deportation unless they learn English. French Jews who have settled in London, on the other hand, get a French rabbi, because, presumably, they find it difficult to follow services in English. But no one says anything about deporting them unless they learn to speak English.

I find this -- what's the polite word? -- puzzling.

Of course immigrants to the UK, wherever they come from, should learn to speak English. Just as the 300,000-400,000 Brits who have settled in Spain should learn to speak Spanish. It does nothing for social cohesion if minorities are unable to communicate with majorities.

But to suggest that Muslim women who for whatever reason cannot speak English are somehow 'susceptible' to the blandishments of jihadi zealots is -- I'm struggling for the polite word again -- surprising. Even the former chairman of the Conservative party, Sayeeda Warsi, who was the UK's first female Muslim cabinet minister, used words like 'lazy, misguided, and sloppy' to describe the prime minister's linking of linguistic shortcomings and potential terrorist sympathies.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah, of the Centre of Islamic Studies at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, wrote in the Daily Telegraph: 'You don’t assist marginalised women by criminalising them ... Conflating Muslim women with immigrants, and immigrant Muslim women with extremism, is not simply factually wrong but morally irresponsible. And to link the "isolation" of some Muslim women to extremism is to not simply isolate them further, but to entrench an implicit link between Muslim women and extremism.'

So the prime minister's remarks make no sense. First, because some of the most isolated Muslim women in the UK tend to be those who come from the Indian sub-continent, especially from the rural Sylhet region of Bangladesh. They are not very likely to drop everything to join IS in Syria.

And second, because threatening to deport them is hardly likely to reduce their 'susceptibility' to zealots preaching hatred, or to help their children feel comfortable growing up in the UK. Much more likely is that it will reinforce the impression that the government regards Muslims, whether born here or not, as some kind of alien presence. And that, of course, is exactly what IS claims. Not clever, Mr Cameron, not clever at all.

Community groups working with marginalised Muslim women agree that much more needs to be done to help integrate them fully into British society. According to Shaista Gohir of the Birmingham-based Muslim Women's Network UK: 'Learning English means women can engage with their children and schools, access local services, know their rights and engage with their neighbours.'

But she also argues that to tackle alienation effectively means more than just language lessons. The real issues, she says, are patriarchy and misogyny among Muslim men. 'It's not just among a few spouses stopping their wives learning English, it's among those running institutions like mosques and local councillors … These out-of-touch men are making decisions about women's lives, and these are the sorts of barriers that women face. That's the real problem for women, regardless of how good their English is.'

So if Mr Cameron is serious about wanting to encourage integration, he should be helping Muslim women's groups to tackle these much more difficult issues. Multi-culturalism and an acceptance of different cultural traditions should not be used as an excuse for the acceptance of oppression or discrimination. Refusing to allow a woman out of the house or to learn English in east London or in Birmingham is just as wrong as sexually harassing women on the streets of Cologne.

And I cannot think of a worse way to encourage Muslims -- men and women -- to feel that they are accepted as valuable members of a vibrant British society than by threatening to deport vulnerable women. Mr Cameron's remarks were crass, counter-productive, and damaging.

On the other hand, perhaps they will help persuade people who are suspicious of Muslims -- and yes, that includes the bigots and the racists -- that Mr Cameron is on their side. And that, as he gears up his campaign to keep the UK in the EU, may have been the point all along. It is shoddy, shameful politics.

Friday 15 January 2016

In defence of liberalism

This is not an easy time to be a liberal. A belief in freedom and equality for all is being sorely tested by those who are only too happy to abuse the freedoms that are available in a liberal society.

Some abuse those freedoms so that they can organise mass suicide attacks, as in Paris. Others organise sexual assaults against women in Cologne and other European cities. As a result, liberals are mocked by their critics: see what your liberalism brings you?

Liberals need to have a clear answer, just as they need a clear answer to a deeply offensive cartoon published this week in Charlie Hebdo, exactly a year after 11 people were killed in a jihadi attack on the magazine's premises in Paris. The cartoon shows two pig-snouted men trying to grab the backside of a fleeing woman, with an inset drawing of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body on a Turkish beach was photographed and published around the world last September.

The caption reads: 'What would little Aylan have become if he had grown up? An arse groper in Germany.' Shocking? Of course. Offensive? Deeply. Funny? Not to me. When I wrote a year ago in defence of Charlie Hebdo, I said: 'Charlie Hebdo is often offensive, deliberately provocative and frequently vulgar. That is its point -- and that is the point of a free society.' Which it is, but it is not always easy to stick to the principle in the face of such deliberate provocation.

No liberal believes in absolute freedom. We restrict freedom of speech by outlawing incitement to violence or racial hatred, and we restrict freedom of movement by putting in place border controls. Liberals are not anarchists: they believe in the need for some kind of State structure to protect life and liberty. (That is why Thomas Paine described government as a 'necessary evil'.)

These days, many liberals believe that government can be a force for good, helping to reduce inequalities and promote a welfare system that offers help to those who need it. But after the shocks of the 2007-8 global financial crisis, faith in government has been badly dented -- and as the Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote this week: 'What is liberalism without public trust in government? A college class.'

The liberal belief in equality includes equality of the sexes, which means that no woman should fear for her safety in a public place. Anyone who threatens an individual's safety, whether that individual is male or female, risks being sanctioned by a government put in place to protect the lives and liberties of all. And here's the crucial bit: those sanctions must be imposed no matter whether the offender is a refugee, an asylum-seeker, an illegal immigrant, or the holder of a European passport.

So the principle should be clear. The men who attacked women in Cologne and elsewhere should be prosecuted, just like anyone else, regardless of where they came from. And if the publishers of Charlie Hebdo were in the UK, there might well be a case for considering a prosecution for incitement to racial hatred. (What does the cartoon suggest? Aylan Kurdi was a would-be migrant from an Arab state. So were some of the alleged attackers in Germany. Therefore, all migrants from Arab states are assaulters of women and deserve our hatred.)

But it is not enough to punish the transgressors. We need to be tough, as someone once said, on crime, and also on the causes of crime. Which means doing more -- much more -- to teach new arrivals in Europe that the offer of sanctuary does not come cost-free: if they want the protection afforded by a liberal democracy, they must accept the laws and norms that go with it. The men who behaved so disgustingly on New Year's Eve knew perfectly well that what they were doing would not be acceptable, but they thought they were untouchable. They must be proved wrong.

Some liberals may feel uncomfortable when one group of people for whose rights they campaign attack another group whose rights they also support. What is a pro-refugee feminist meant to do? I think the answer is perfectly clear: you can defend the rights of refugees without defending every action of every refugee, just as you can be a feminist without defending everything said or done by every woman.

Liberals need to do more to dispel the impression that they are woolly-minded or soft-hearted. It took blood, sweat and tears to replace feudal autocracy with liberal democracy, and we need to be alive to the danger that in the face of continuing provocations, whether from testosterone-fuelled young men or from Charlie Hebdo, anti-liberals like Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage will seize every opportunity that they are given.

Liberals also need to make sure that they deal with all manifestations of extreme illiberalism equally. So while the government frequently expresses its concern about what might be being taught in some Islamic faith schools, or madrassas, I hope it will also be pressed to take a look at the allegations reported in The Independent yesterday of appalling abuses in some of Britain's ultra-Orthodox Jewish yeshivahs, where it is alleged that children are being subjected to corporal punishment, prevented from learning English, and, in the words of one former student, 'bred in racism, sexism and bigotry'.

The Labour party has not always been a liberal (small L) party -- I don't think anyone would accuse either Jack Straw or David Blunkett of having been liberal home secretaries. Nor am I persuaded that Mr Corbyn is a natural-born liberal, but it would be wonderful to be proved wrong. If Tim Farron (what do you mean 'Who's he?' -- he's the leader of the Liberal Democrats) ever gets a chance to make his voice heard, there is a campaign waiting to be waged: a campaign for liberalism, freedom and equality, regardless of provocation from any quarter.